The Guardian

Britons freed in prisoner deal with Russia return home to families

‘I’ll miss my baby’s birth, but I’ll not let Putin turn me into a killer’

- Dan Sabbagh

The five Britons released from Russia were back home and reunited with their families yesterday after months of captivity in which it was feared they would be executed for fighting for Ukraine.

Aiden Aslin, 28, returned to his family home near Newark and thanked Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and “everybody else that was involved in our release” as he entered the house.

Aslin said he had had “a traumatic experience,” having been under threat of execution since a controvers­ial trial in June, where he was sentenced to death in breach of internatio­nal humanitari­an law. He added that he would speak further about his experience in due course.

“When I’m ready to talk to the media, I’ll talk to the media,” he said.

Shaun Pinner, released alongside Aslin, was pictured with his family in a hotel room this morning by his mother, Debbie Price, who thanked “all the amazing people” who had helped to secure his release.

Later, his family said Pinner and his close relatives had endured “a harrowing time”, which “has now had such a happy resolution”. They added: “Shaun is in good spirits and still has his sense of humour intact. He is looking forward to steak and a glass of red wine tonight.”

A major diplomatic effort was behind the release of the five Britons, who, together with two Americans, a Moroccan, a Croat and a Swedish national, were released by Russia to Saudi Arabia late on Wednesday.

Riyadh said its mediation effort had been led by its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman – who had pulled out of attending the Queen’s funeral because of the continuing controvers­y over his alleged role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

It is unclear if the diplomatic push represente­d an attempt to boost the crown prince’s standing in the UK, but the Saudis were keen to show the former captives were safe in a video and pictures released as they got off the plane on Wednesday night.

Zelenskiy spoke to Prince Mohammed yesterday and thanked him for his “facilitati­on in the release of foreign citizens”.

Aslin, Pinner and the other three released Britons – John Harding, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy – had been held by pro-Russia separatist­s in Donetsk, accused of being mercenarie­s fighting for Ukraine.

Another passenger on their flight from Riyadh said that Hill had told him that the former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich had helped secure their safety as part of a group involved in negotiatin­g their release. “He didn’t know much more about it but he was very grateful,” the passenger told the Daily Mirror.

Aslin and Pinner, who had joined Ukraine’s army and were captured in Mariupol, were sentenced to death by the court, a ruling that broke the Geneva convention­s, which require that prisoners of war not be treated as criminals simply for taking part in fighting.

It had been assumed that Russia or the pro-Russia separatist­s were trying to use the five men as diplomatic leverage. Their release was something of a surprise and came after internet rumours that Aslin and Pinner had been executed.

It was also part of a wider prisoner swap deal, in which Russia released five commanders who had been involved in defending the Azov steelworks, and about 200 other prisoners, in a mediation involving Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They were exchanged for the pro-Russia oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk and about 50 Russians.

Russia typically swaps prisoners on a one-to-one basis, and it had been feared the separatist­s would put the Azov steel plant defenders from Mariupol on trial. That it has backed away from this suggests a rare concern for global opinion on the part of Moscow.

Hours after Vladimir Putin shocked Russia by announcing the first mobilisati­on since the second world war, Oleg received his draft papers, ordering him to make his way to the local recruitmen­t centre in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan republic.

As a 29-year-old sergeant in the Russian reserves, Oleg said he always knew that he would be the first in line if a mobilisati­on was declared, but he hoped that he would not be forced to fight in Ukraine. “My heart sank when I got the call-up,” he said. “But I knew I had no time to despair.”

He quickly packed his belongings and booked a one-way ticket to Orenburg, a southern Russian city close to the border with Kazakhstan. “I will be driving across the border tonight,” he said in a telephone call from Orenburg’s airport.

“I have no idea when I’ll set foot in Russia again,” he added, referring to the jail sentence Russian men face for avoiding the draft.

Oleg said he would leave behind his wife, who is due to give birth next week. “I will miss the most important day of my life. But I am simply not letting Putin turn me into a killer in a war that I want no part in.”

The Kremlin’s decision to announce a partial mobilisati­on has led to a rush among men of military age to leave the country, which is likely to spark a new, possibly unpreceden­ted, brain drain in the coming weeks.

The Guardian spoke to more than a dozen men and women who had left Russia since Putin announced the mobilisati­on, or who were planning to leave within days.

Options to flee are limited, they say. Earlier this week, four of the five EU countries bordering Russia announced they would no longer allow Russians to enter on tourist visas.

Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, the capitals of countries allowing Russians visa-free entry, were sold out for the next week, while the cheapest one-way flight from Moscow to Dubai cost about 370,000 rubles (£5,000) – a price too steep for most.

And so many, like Oleg, were forced to get creative and drive to some of the few land borders still open to Russians.

Border guards in Finland, the last EU country that allows entry to Russians on tourist visas, said they had noticed an “exceptiona­l number” of Russians seeking to cross the border overnight, while witnesses said the RussianGeo­rgian and Russian-Mongolian borders were “collapsing” with overwhelmi­ng traffic.

“We are seeing an even bigger exodus than when the war started,” said Ira Lobanovska­ya, who started the Guide to the Free World NGO, which helps Russians against the war leave the country.

Many of those still in Russia will feel that time is running out. At least three regions have announced they will close their borders to men eligible for the draft. Border agents at Russian airports have also reportedly started interrogat­ing male passengers about their military service status and checking return tickets.

After thousands of Russians rallied against the war and mobilisati­on on Wednesday, some took to social media to criticise protesters for not speaking out earlier, when their country’s troops were committing human rights abuses in Bucha, Irpin and other towns across Ukraine.

“I understand people’s frustratio­n,” said Igor, 26, an IT profession­al from St Petersburg, who plans to fly to Vladikavka­z and drive to Georgia, another popular escape route, next week. “I attended the anti-war protest when Putin launched his invasion, but the authoritie­s just jail everyone.”

Some of those detained in Moscow have been given draft notices while locked up, according to the monitoring group OVD, further underlying the dangers Russians face on the streets.

“I think the only way I can personally help Ukraine right now is by not fighting there,” said Igor.

There have also been calls for the EU to support Russians who are looking for a way out of the draft.

Anitta Hipper, the EU Commission spokespers­on on home affairs, said the bloc would

meet to discuss the issuance of humanitari­an visas to Russians fleeing mobilisati­on. However, the three Baltic states said yesterday that they were not prepared to automatica­lly offer asylum to Russians fleeing the draft.

Fears have grown after the independen­t website Novaya Gazeta Europe reported, based on its government sources, that the mobilisati­on decrees allowed the defence ministry to call up 1 million people, instead of the 300,000 announced by the country’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, on Wednesday.

For now, Lobanovska­ya said, the majority of Russians leaving were men. The Guardian also spoke to several women, mostly medics, who also decided to leave the country after reports that Russia was calling up health profession­als to the front.

“I know medics are supposed to treat people; that is our duty,” said Tatayana, a doctor fleeing from Irkutsk, “But I believe the sooner this horrible war stops, the fewer people will die.”

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: AIDEN ASLIN/UNPIXS ?? Released prisoners Shaun Pinner, in orange top, and Aiden Aslin, right, arriving in Riyadh yesterday
PHOTOGRAPH: AIDEN ASLIN/UNPIXS Released prisoners Shaun Pinner, in orange top, and Aiden Aslin, right, arriving in Riyadh yesterday

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